Tom Wolfe

He put New Journalism on the map with writing that shook as fiercely as it shimmered.

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Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe had been working at the New York Herald Tribune only six months when the newspaper strike of 1963 put him temporarily out of a job. He didn’t know it then, but he was about to change the course of American journalism. All he knew was that he needed to find some freelance work.

As a feature writer for the Herald Tribune, he had recently visited the Hot Rod & Custom Car show at the Coliseum, but hadn’t been completely happy with the piece he’d written.

“The thing was, I knew I had another story all the time, a bona fide story, the real story of the Hot Rod & Custom Car show, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” “It was outside the system of ideas I was used to working with, even though I had been through the whole Ph.D. route at Yale, in American Studies and everything.”

His sudden unemployment may have caused him to regret having turned down Yale’s offer of a teaching position in 1956. But five years as a graduate student had given him, as he put it in the introduction to “The New Journalism,” “a fierce and unnatural craving for something else entirely. Chicago, 1928, that was the general idea … Drunken reporters out on the ledge of the News peeing into the Chicago River at dawn … Nights down at the saloon listening to ‘Back of the Yards’ being sung by a baritone who was only a lonely blind bulldyke with lumps of milkglass for eyes …”

So he had apprenticed as a reporter at the Springfield (Mass.) Union and then worked as a reporter and Latin American correspondent at the Washington Post, winning Washington Newspaper Guild awards but chafing under the Post system. As he told a Newsweek reporter, “I didn’t subscribe to the theory that every documented sparrow that falls within our circulation area you have to write about.”

His ambitions brought him to the Herald Tribune, where he hoped to further develop his style. But now with the strike on he needed work. Editor Byron Dobell of Esquire agreed to send Wolfe to California to write about the hot rod culture.

Wolfe was about to explode over America. He was about to appear in the heavens like a clean-shaven Jehovah throwing down electrically charged trochaic hammerlines of sheer ecstatic vision and pure hippie grace! Soon it would be: Wake up, America! Tom Wolfe is here! Banging on the dean’s door with a dandy’s cudgel in his ivory three-piece suit like a Mercury astronaut intubated with 50 centileters of Old Granddad, tearing through journalism’s sleepy hollow of leather club chairs and Connecticut train schedules like a Virginia frat boy channeling Alexis de Tocqueville, yelling, “Wake up, you sleeping-beauty three-dot phone-fed so-called journalists dreaming of a publicist’s underwear! Wake up you Rogaine revolutionaries and J. Crew flannel worshippers from your sleep of MFA sinecures with your Lands’ End picnic baskets full to bursting with Harry and David organic fruits grown by nervous Northern California neo-botanists with great skin who in an honester age would have lined up outside Ye Olde Leeches and Bloodletting Parlor for the requisite Middle Ages pageboy and signed on for the Crusades! Wake up, everybody! Tom Wolfe is here!”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In this story we’re telling it was still 1963 and the not-yet-famous, out-of-work Wolfe went to California for Esquire to check out the car scene and ran up a $750 tab at the Beverly Wilshire and came back to New York with copious notes but no story.

American-studies Ph.D. with X-ray eyes meets nitro Neanderthals squatting by the drag strip of our last frontier, discovers autonomous youth culture never before possible in the history of the world except now with unprecedented post-WWII world hegemony and unparalleled productive capacity!

But he can’t write the darn thing.

Wolfe is down! Crawling toward the enemy pillbox like a “Sgt. Rock” G.I. with nothing left but the grit in his belly and the fire in his heart! He calls his editor at Esquire on the walkie talkie:

“Byron … Sarge … Can’t … finish … article. Take … my … facts … finish … story.”

“You can do it,” Dobell says.

“Can’t … finish … story,” says Wolfe. “Here … take … my … notes.”

“OK, have it your way,” Dobell tells him. Just type up the notes, and they’ll have somebody else write it up. “I’ll see you around Sports Afield-freelancer 5-cents-a-word part-time Yellow Cab-driving hell, boy!”

Wolfe starts typing a memo at 8 p.m.: “Dear Byron …” By midnight he has 20 pages. He turns on WABC and starts listening to rock ‘n’ roll and keeps writing.

“I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 a.m., and by this time it was 49 pages long,” he later wrote. “I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 a.m. About 4 p.m. I got a call from Byron Dobell. He told me they were striking out the ‘Dear Byron’ at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine.”

“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” became the title piece of Wolfe’s first book, a collection of 22 magazine and newspaper pieces published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1965. In addition to the introduction that described how Esquire came to publish a “Dear Byron” memo as a piece of journalism, it contained such pieces as “The New Art Gallery Society,” “The Nanny Mafia,” “The Girl of the Year,” “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” and “Why Doormen Hate Volkswagens.” Taken together, the pieces encapsulated the themes, mannerisms and obsessions that would play out over the next 35 years, not only in his journalism but in his novels.

He started doing crazy stuff. He started one story about the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village like this: “Hai-ai-ai-ai- i-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai- i-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai- ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai- i-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai- ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai- ai-aireeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

And this is how he started “Girl of the Year,” about society “It” girl Jane Holzer at a Rolling Stones concert:

Bangs mains bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater underneath that vast old mouldering cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!

He was appropriating the upper-class literary tools of fiction and poetry and using them to ornament his lower-class magazine and newspaper journalism. It was as though he was using the good silver to slop the hogs. In American literary culture, all hell broke loose.

In 1965, Wolfe attacked the New Yorker magazine with two articles of historical significance that will be anthologized for the first time in “Hooking Up,” a collection of nonfiction and fiction that Wolfe’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will publish in the fall. They are currently available only in back issues of New York magazine, which was then the Sunday supplement of the Herald Tribune: “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” and “Lost in the Whichy Thickets: The New Yorker-II.”

Blam blam! Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Wolfe single-handedly wipes out machine gun nest of tired feature writers encamped in New Yorker magazine bunker! No more narcoleptic pseudo-objective institutional blow-job dispatches, no more sycophantic formulaic post-hypnotic feature writing! No more navel-gazing pasty-faced bad-faith “novelists” writing book-length crossword puzzles! It’s time to put your boots on your feet and your reporter’s notebook in your back pocket and stride out into the open American air and write about what the hell is really going on in this country!

Roused from Urizenic sleep, Dwight McDonald, New Yorker staff writer and patriarch of the literati, retaliated with “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine,” and “Parajournalism II: Wolfe and The New Yorker”! Renata Adler and Gerald Jonas joined in, citing: Factual errors! But Wolfe said he put them in on purpose! Attack Tom Wolfe! Kill Tom Wolfe! Manhattan aflame with literary envy and spite. Streets clogged with bile! Vindictiveness backs up subway! But Wolfe won’t quit!

“As the most spectacular journalist in years,” gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote, “Wolfe caused severe jealousy and outrage pangs throughout the U.S. literary establishment when he sprang right out of Pop Culture’s forehead to become a star practically overnight. Seldom has anyone seen such visceral envies, such backbiting bitchiness, such voodoo malevolence directed at any writer — especially after he took on the New Yorker magazine.”

Over the next few years, the existence of New Journalism was debated as fervently as the existence of God. Articles such as “Is there a New Journalism?”; “The ‘Old’ New Journalism”; “New Journalism Now”; “Bad Writing and the New Journalism”; and “Want to See New Journalism in Newspapers? Well, Don’t Hold Your Breath” appeared in journals of the trade such as Quill and the Columbia Journalism Review.

In 1973, Wolfe published “The New Journalism,” a collection of examples of the art by Terry Southern, Rex Reed, Hunter S. Thompson and others. In its introduction he made a lucid and cogent argument for writers to turn away from introspection and to make the observable, reportable world the source of their art.

The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one in which the artist is viewed as a holy beast who in some way, big or small, receives flashes from the godhead, which is known as creativity,” he wrote. “The material is merely his clay, his palette … Even the obvious relationship between reporting and the major novels — one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and, in fact, Joyce — is something that literary historians deal with only in a biographical sense. It took the New Journalism to bring this strange matter of reporting into the foreground.

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Wolfe has such a way of stirring things up that one cannot help picturing him getting his share of St. Christopher’s School thumpings as a high school kid in Richmond, Va. After all, he co-edited the newspaper and chaired the student council. Who wouldn’t want to smack him? And just look at those supercilious, smirking, smart-ass Tory eyes, that high, aristocratic forehead, the lock of WASPish flaxen hair inviting those who don’t know opera to play knuckle sonatas on his porcelain chin.

The Richmond he was born in in 1931 may have been too polite for such things, and his parents, Helen Hughes and Thomas Kinnerly Wolfe Sr. — his dad an agronomist who taught at Virginia Polytechnic and edited a journal called the Southern Planter — may have been the Ward and June Cleavers of their time. It may even be that he safely navigated the deeply conservative, all-male Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., where in his time one was still required to wear a tie to class (the son of a student there at the time says Wolfe wore bow ties), pitching on the baseball team, being sports editor of the school newspaper and co-founding the literary quarterly Shenandoah without so much as one session of boot-heel chiropractic. But his contrarian impulse and his genius for mockery backed by uncanny accuracy must have infuriated his peers as it later infuriated America’s literary and artistic establishments.

Be that as it may, Wolfe dismisses his own childhood as routine, claiming, “I was lucky, I guess, in my family in that they had a very firm idea of roles: Father, Mother, Child. Nothing was ever allowed to bog down into those morass-like personal hang-ups. And there was no rebellion. The main thing about childhood was to get out of it.”

After a failed tryout as a pitcher with the old New York Giants at age 21, he took with him to Yale and then to Manhattan what Liz Smith, writing in Status magazine in 1966, called “the Virginia-born resentment of the entire Eastern Seaboard clique’s old leftover FDR liberalism and snobbism.”

It was that keen awareness of class and status that he carried into everything he wrote. Moreover, the way his youth put a stamp on his writing provides not only a useful magazine-style transition here from the requisite little early-life bio section, but may indeed say something about why many believe Wolfe’s talents are misused in the novel.

As he noted at the time with what seemed ironic distance but turned out to eerily prefigure his own career, “The Novel seemed like one of the last of those superstrokes, like finding gold or striking oil, through which an American could, overnight, in a flash, utterly transform his destiny.” He says elsewhere in the same piece, “At this late date — partly due to the New Journalism itself — it’s hard to explain what an American dream the idea of writing a novel was in the 1940s, the 1950s, and right into the early 1960s. The Novel was no mere literary form. It was a psychological phenomenon. It was a cortical fever.”

At its best, Wolfe’s journalism sizzles with a quality of stunned amazement distilled into keen eloquence. At its worst, his fiction is bloated, overbearing and boring. After he published “The Right Stuff,” which many consider to be his best nonfiction work, Wolfe published “In Our Time,” a coffee table book; “The Painted Word,” an attack on the pretensions of modern art; “From Bauhaus to Our House,” a screed on modern architecture; and the collection of articles “The Purple Decades: A reader,” before turning to fiction and publishing, in 1987, the blockbuster novel that became a Hollywood movie, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Since that time Wolfe has been apparently trying to demonstrate, by doing it himself, that realistic fiction is the future of American literature. In 1998 he released his second gargantuan novel, “A Man in Full.”

Norman Mailer took up five extra-large New York Review of Books pages to agonize over “A Man in Full” and to say that it was better than “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (which is saying what, precisely?) while at the same time comparing it to making love with a fat lady — “Once she gets on top, it’s over.”

Mailer also offered thoughts on why Wolfe is such a fine writer of nonfiction and such a flawed novelist:

Can one say that his strength as a journalist contributes to his weakness as a novelist? It is likely. He was so good as a young reporter that he was promoted to feature writer. But even in the upper reaches of feature writing, you still move on quickly to another subject, another set of people … He spent his early professional life writing too quickly and moving on … Can we offer a final verdict? Tom may be the hardest-working showoff the literary world has ever owned.

When Wolfe occasionally returns to the practice of journalism, as he did with “The Artist the World Couldn’t See,” a recent New York Times magazine article, his fans still hope to see the insouciant fire and wit that made pieces like “Radical Chic” and “The Pumphouse Gang” such an effervescent pleasure. (For the title piece of his new “Hooking Up” collection, his publisher reports, Wolfe immersed himself in the subculture of American teens and reports on their sexual rites with the clinical precision ornamented by baroque flourishes for which he is justly famous. We are also told that according to Wolfe, today’s youths define “second base” as oral sex.)

But just as often, we are disappointed. In scolding the art world for ignoring sculptor Frederick Hart, who died at 55 a public success and a critical nonentity, Wolfe predictably ascribes Hart’s obscurity to that putative art-world cabal described in “The Painted Word” and “From Bauhaus to Our House,” whose high crimes include the promotion of abstract painting and the erection of modern buildings. But, as a letter writer responds, “The art world ignores Frederick Hart’s sculpture, not because of the formal nature of his art but because his sculpture, remarkably skilled though it may be, seldom, if ever, rises above the slick and sentimental.”

But above all, when Wolfe hectors us about our failure to grasp the importance of social realism and the centrality of status seeking in American life, he doesn’t entertain us. It’s no fun. Maybe we’re dolts, asses and twits; maybe we’re lazy and narrow and weak; maybe we need to be educated by Mr. Wolfe. But all we want is to have some fun! He used to entertain us and he doesn’t anymore.

The value of “The Painted Word” and “From Bauhaus to Our House” is that by example Wolfe gives us courage to question an orthodoxy that has kept undeservedly long the mantle of the iconoclastic. If read a certain way, those books can reinvigorate our relations to art. We need the courage to trust our own responses, to resist the social pressure to praise what leaves us cold and feign indifference to work from which we secretly derive some warm, sustaining pleasure. What can make Wolfe’s bellowing about aesthetics tiresome, however, is that while directing us to seek more authentic aesthetic experiences, he himself lapses from art into polemic. Having given in to the urge to be right, he has forsaken that loftier job of the writer, which is to be intellectually beguiling in a way so complex as to awaken the soul’s delight.

And Wolfe’s fiction, too, seems meant less as an expression of his own aesthetic powers and more as Exhibits A and B in his voluminous brief against modern novels. While “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was a commercial success, it lacked the stylistic power and sizzle of his journalism. Ditto with “A Man in Full,” 1998′s rotund tome set in Atlanta, despite its remarkable 1.2 million initial hardback press run. Wolfe simply does not seem to be a great novelist. He is absolutely right about the necessity of looking at the surfaces of American life, but in the process of telling us that, he disregards the surfaces of his own prose. When Wolfe wrote his great stuff about cars, when he wrote “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” his prose had a shimmer in the details because he was celebrating the power of surfaces both in the world and in his writing.

What can you do? Gather below his New York apartment with megaphones and hector: Bad Tom Wolfe! Stop Writing Fiction! Bad Tom Wolfe!

Apply tough love? “Dammit, soldier, get out there and report! Tell us how we live today! Make us hear it, touch it, smell it, see it, taste it! Make us feel it!”

Don’t be ridiculous.

For fans who love and respect the early journalism of Tom Wolfe, the only thing to be done, aside from looking eagerly forward to “Hooking Up,” is to recognize that Wolfe is onto something else now. Like it or not, leave it at that. Perhaps for his forthcoming collection, he will have occasionally dipped his pen into the ink of the gods.

Rather than petulance and stridency, the proper stance is a studied and patient distance.

Can you do a good insouciant shrug?

Good. Let’s all do one big therapeutic insouciant shrug together on the count of three:

One.

Two.

Three.

SHRUG!

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